Bingham, Millicent Todd (1880–1968)

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Bingham, Millicent Todd (1880–1968)

American geographer, conservationist, author, and educator. Born Millicent Todd on February 5, 1880, in Washington, D.C.; died on December 1, 1968; daughter of David Peck (an astronomer specializing in the study of eclipses) and Mabel (Loomis) Todd (a writer and lecturer); attended Mrs. Stearns' School in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Miss Hersey's School, Boston, Massachusetts; awarded B.A. from Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1902; M.A. in geography, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1917; Ph.D. in geography, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1923; married Walter Van Dyke Bingham (a psychologist), on December 4, 1920 (died 1952).

Selected writings:

(biography) Life of Mary E. Stearns (1909); (biography of maternal grandfather) Elben Jenks Loomis (1913); Peru, Land of Contrasts (1914); (with Raoul Blanchard) The Geography of France (1919); La Floride du sud-est et la ville de Miami (1932); (editor) Letters of Emily Dickinson (1931); Mabel Loomis Todd: Her Contribution to the Town of Amherst (1935); (editor with Mabel Loomis Todd) Bolts of Melody (1945); Beyond Psychology (1953); (editor) Emily Dickinson: A Revelation (1954); Emily Dickinson's Home: Letters of Edward Dickinson and his Family, with Documentation and Comment (1955).

As the first woman to receive a doctorate in geology and geography from Harvard and a leading expert on Emily Dickinson , Millicent Todd Bingham distinguished herself in the fields of both geography and literature. She devoted several decades to editing many of Dickinson's unpublished letters and poems, and, as a legacy of her lifelong concern with conservation, in 1960 Bingham presented the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary on Hog Island, Maine, to the National Audubon Society as a perpetual preserve.

Bingham's early interest in geography was encouraged by her father, an astronomy professor at Amherst College. As a young woman, she accompanied him on astronomical expeditions to exotic locales throughout the world, including Peru, Chile, and Russia. After receiving her degree in biology at Vassar College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named commencement speaker, she taught French at Vassar and Wellesley colleges while pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Grenoble and the University of Paris. In 1918, after receiving her M.A. degree in geography from Radcliffe, she worked for the U.S. Army Education Corps, lecturing American soldiers on the geography of France. Bingham completed her education at Harvard, receiving her Ph.D. in 1923. From 1928 to 1929, she lectured on geography at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. In 1920, she married Walter Van Dyke Bingham, a psychologist. Throughout the marriage, she took an active interest in his work; after his death in 1953, Bingham would write the book Beyond Psychology in her husband's memory.

Bingham's mother Mabel Loomis Todd had collaborated with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in preparing the first editions of Dickinson's poems (published in 1890, 1891, 1896) and subsequently inherited a Chinese camphorwood chest filled with Dickinson's unpublished manuscripts. Mabel Todd had been preparing them for publication when a controversy with the Dickinson family interrupted the project. As a joint undertaking, mother and daughter began working anew on an enlarged edition of the 1894 Letters of Emily Dickinson, which they saw published in 1931. Then, as they began preparing the unpublished poems, Mabel Todd died in 1932, leaving her daughter Millicent to fulfill the promise she had made to "set the record straight." Bingham realized that she had reached what she called a "point of no return" and abandoned her geographical studies to complete the Dickinson project.

She faced a number of challenges in preparing Dickinson's unpublished poetry (Bolts of Melody, 1945), not the least of which were the variations in handwriting that appeared in the manuscript. Bingham discussed the problem of Dickinson's handwriting in the introduction of the book and also in an article for the New England Quarterly (June 1949) titled "Emily Dickinson's Handwriting: A Master Key."

For her publication of the Dickinson family letters, Bingham decided to prepare a reconstructed overview showing Amherst as it had been in Dickinson's day. She traveled extensively to collect materials, using newspaper accounts and court records to supplement the material in the letters. The resulting Emily Dickinson's Home: Letters of Edward Dickinson and his Family, with Documentation and Comment was published in 1955. Some additional letters from Dickinson to her father's best friend, Otis Phillips Lord, were published in 1954 (Emily Dickinson—A Revelation), and the remaining fragmented material from the chest appeared in a New England Quarterly article, "Prose Fragments" (September 1955), bringing the project to a close. Bingham subsequently presented the manuscripts to Amherst College, including the daguerreotype that is the only known likeness of Emily Dickinson as an adult.

The Hog Island property off the coast of Maine was also part of Bingham's inheritance from her mother, who had hoped to protect the land from loggers. In 1935, the island was renamed the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary and in 1936 the Audubon Society, of which Bingham was a longtime member, set up a nature camp on the site to provide instruction on the principles of conservation. In 1960, when Bingham donated the land permanently to the Audubon Society, it was estimated that 6,000 visitors had attended the two-week course.

Until her death in 1968, Millicent Bingham was concerned about the destruction of the bountiful natural resources in the United States. The warning she issued early in the 1960s still echoes in the pleas of conservationists: "Man can now be ranked with earthquakes and tidal waves as a geological agent of destruction," she wrote, "one potentially even more powerful now that the atom is at his disposal. The people in the country must realize what is happening, for the hour is late."

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts